A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
Sep 26, 2021
Many of you already know about our family dog, Chester. You may not know though that our youngest, Simon Henri, also has a pet, all his own, a bearded dragon named Nacho. This summer when we went to the North Shore we took both pets with us, not wanting to be parted from them for such a long time. So it was that Chester learned to love hiking every day, and Nacho learned that fresh grasshoppers are a bearded dragon’s favorite food. Prior to leaving Nacho had benefited from an occasional live cricket snack, the small ones sold in small inflated baggies at the pet store. But, when we arrived north this summer, grasshopper season was in full swing. The ditches and boulevards were literally teeming with the giant bright green hoppers. The small lawn in front of the cabin was like a grasshopper convention. And, so it was that Simon Henri discovered that he could capture the insects at no additional cost and feed his beloved Nacho the premium snack. Grasshopper catching became something of a pastime for the boys, and Nacho grew decadent and expansive on his new diet. But, every time the boys called out to one another to go catch these insects, or whenever Nacho made a particularly daring grab for one in his cage, the boys kept referring to the bugs as crickets. “Did you see Nacho catch that cricket?!?” “Hey, do you want to go outside and catch some crickets?” And, being the son of a biologist and never one to miss an opportunity to educate my boys, I found myself correcting them each time. “Boys,” I would call after them as they dashed off on their entomological adventures “They’re called grasshoppers not crickets!” But, no matter how often I tried to point out the error of their bug mis-identification, the correction didn’t seem to work. Finally the back and forth between us started to take on a life of its own. Simon, giggling, would look at me out of the corner of his eye as he put a grasshopper in to feed Nacho and would teasingly call to me – “Dad, do you want to see Nacho eat this CRICKET?” And, Jude, giggling and using his best dad voice “Simon Henri, it is a grasshopper, not a cricket!” From there the good natured ribbing evolved into a full blown family inside joke. Now any time anyone in the family is engaged in debates and bickering about anything that seems a little less than ultimate, when the boys and I launch into a heated debate about the finer details of Star Wars, for example, it is now common place to defuse the arguments in our house by saying “I think this is a grasshopper.”
Grasshoppers are all over the place in our everyday lives, in our homes, in our places of work, in our politics, and yes, even in our churches. Our tendency as humans is often toward competition and challenge, which is to say power and authority. We are quick to frame so much through the lens of right and wrong, success and failure, winning and losing. And let’s be honest, these days, not much feels like winning. With a climate that is warming past the point of no return, political polarization, and a pandemic that seems to stretch out in front of us with no end in sight, the problems of the world seem irresolvable and confounding. We should, our competitive minds tell us, be able to solve these problems. We should be able to win at these things, if only we could convince the other side that their approach is wrong and ours is right. But, we can’t. Which isn’t to say that our significant ideological, social, and political differences are mere differences of opinion, or that we should all “just get along”. Rather, it is to name that the solutions to these intractable differences, the solutions of which seem essential to our very survival, are so elusive and beyond us that we are genuinely and completely frustrated. Unable to solve the great problems of our lives, our frustration devolves into lesser and lesser conflicts, petty grievances, and minor offenses become cause for us to bicker and squabble and debate, trying to find some field upon which we can actually win. Grasshoppers.
I said in my last sermon that we’ve found ourselves in this late stage of the pandemic at a point of great resignation where we as a people are walking away from jobs and friendships, and marriages and neighborhoods and churches at a time when we most need each other. The phrase, “I’m just done.” is now the watchword for this point in history. We are all stretched past the breaking point such that it doesn’t take much to be that proverbial final straw, and things DO break — relationships break, communities break, we break. Again, this is not to say that some of the things we’re facing are minimal or insignificant. Some of what we face right now are the greatest challenges any of us will ever face alone or together – terminal diagnoses, traumas too awful to share, addictions, and depression. And, this is precisely why we need each other so desperately at this moment.
This morning’s gospel has John leading the disciples to Jesus to tattle about some supposed competition and how he and the disciples tried to shut it down, how they attempted to stop the other guy. Scholars believe that this lesson is included in Mark because of some greater intractable differences and struggles being faced in that early Markan community through which this gospel was written. The disciples say “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” Note the emphasis on why they tried stopping this competitor – “he was not following US.” How quickly the disciples seem to insert themselves and their own achievement and power in the place of gospel, in place of the good news that God’s liberating and life-giving love is freely given, that in Jesus God is reconciling the world, healing our divisions, drawing the whole of creation, all that is broken, to himself. Instead, they’re concerned that this other guy is not following them! Jesus calls “Grasshopper” in response.
“Do not stop him… Whoever is not against us is for us.” Here a person is casting out demons, which is 1st century language for liberating others, freeing them from whatever evil holds them back, and he is even doing so in the name of Jesus, and the disciples are more interested in winning, even at the cost of further division, than they are in the work of liberation in Jesus’ name. They’re ready to create stronger divisions over something small, and in so doing, squash something magnificent and grand. Jesus responds further with this hard truth, “I tell you,” he says, “anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink in my name loses nothing and wins everything” Whoever acts for mercy and grace, whoever comes toward you in this small act of hospitality and connection, the sharing of a cup, will have done the greater things. This is winning.
As the gospel continues we hear what scholars tell us are hyperbolic warnings about not causing others to stumble in their faith, the dangers of treating everything and everyone as a competition to win and an adversary to overpower. Would that we should cut off arm and leg before we cause another to stumble, says Jesus. Yet, we who have been so distant from one another in the Body of Christ these past 18 months know that hyperbole often comes close to real life, how absence from the Eucharist and absence from gathering in person has made us feel like severed parts, like our body is missing vital pieces. We sense each other’s absence like phantom limbs, yearning for the connections and wholeness we once took for granted. And, it is into this sense of loneliness and loss, disconnection and distance, that we must guard against our tendency toward power and gain, toward competition and control, our desire to be right, to win, and strive instead toward small acts of grace, the giving and receiving of a cup of water, the gentle generosity of a phone call to someone with whom we’ve lost connection, the card written, the deep breath before responding in frustration, the holy act of looking for Christ in each face.
As pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes,
What is the hand in you
that reaches for what is not yours? Cut it off.
There is nothing you need to grasp.
What is the eye in you that does not look with love?
Pluck it out. The eyes of love are good enough.
What are the feet in you that that won’t trust,
that lead you away from the path of love?
Cut them off. You don’t need to go there.
The Teacher is not asking you to maim yourself.
He is inviting you to name what interferes,
and to take away its power.
He’s leading us out of the unquenchable fire
of our fears, desires and attachments.
Without our grasping, fearful, compulsive parts,
perhaps then we will rely more
on the eyes and hands and feet of Jesus.
In the now classic musical Hamilton, the titular character, Alexander Hamilton is played to perfection in the original by Lin Manuel-Miranda, as a young man, ambitious and striving to become the master of his own universe, to make a name for himself and leave his mark on history and the world. He is shown to be a man caught between two competing desires – toward the human yearning each of us has, to be connected to friends and loved ones, to have a place in a beloved community, and to stand out from that community, to be better, to have success, to win. One of the most poignant songs in the whole play comes as he returns home early from the war to discover his wife Eliza is expecting their first child. They sing a duet in which Alexander seems unable to look away from his own ambition while Eliza sings of what might constitute “enough” for the both of them pointing first at their present context and backward to Alexander’s humble beginnings.
“Look around”, she says
Look at where you are
Look at where you started
The fact that you’re alive is a miracle
Just stay alive, that would be enough”
The world coming down around them, and she calls his eyes away from competition and power and toward connection and deep relationship – she calls him away from ambition and toward enough.
This is the call of the gospel for us this morning in a world always coming apart at the seams. We’re alive, we’ve managed to be here, and by some miracle this morning, we’re gathering on a Sunday in person. This morning we have Jesus in the bread and wine and in the gathering of each of you here and online in the connections we share through the Body of Christ.
Oh, that that cup of mercy and grace would be enough, that would be winning, and everything else would be grasshoppers.